On the leopard trail
By Sanath Weerasuriya
In Sri Lanka, everyone talks of elephants, their conservation and protection.
But many of us have forgotten the importance of the leopard, the only 'big
cat' found on Sri Lankan soil. According to the Wildlife Department, little
study or research has been done so far on leopards in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is a unique sub-species,
fascinating in that it has existed for thousands of years in isolation
in an environment where it is the sole large predatory carnivore. This
situation is thought to have caused a change in behaviour that makes it
quite different to other global populations.
Down in the southern ranges of Yala Block 1, a young husband and wife
team of wildlife researchers,
Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson is now studying the Sri Lankan leopard.
Their 'Leopard Project' is aimed at investigating the leopard population
within Yala Block 1, in an effort to accurately determine such aspects
as the number of animals resident in the area, the size of their home-ranges
and what constitutes their diet. In addition, they hope to better understand
some of the leopard's behavioural characteristics.
Utilizing this information, their hope is to build the foundation for
a comprehensive conservation strategy for the future protection of the
leopard within Sri Lanka. For without a solid understanding of the leopard
in relation to the ecosystem in which it resides, there can be no framework
for a successful conservation plan.
"This study will take at least 12 months. We have already finished about
six months of the project and after completion, we will submit the report
of the case study with our recommendations to the Wildlife Department,"
"We hope the department will use this as the basis for the protection
and conservation of our Kotiya. The leopard is the main animal in the food
chain or the nature chain, where it keeps the balance and occupies the
top spot. I think the leopard should be the 'flagship animal of Sri Lanka'.
If we protect the leopard we will be protecting all the species down the
line," she explained.
Of all the big cats in the world, the leopard is known as the most adaptable,
possessing the ability to thrive in habitats ranging from desert to jungle,
savannah to scrub including areas with intense human presence. Despite
this renowned versatility, leopard populations are in danger around the
globe. Originally this was due to a flourishing market in their spectacular
skins, climaxing in the late 60s and early 70s. In March 1972, the United
States listed the leopard as an endangered species throughout its range.
Three years later it was added to Appendix I of the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which completely
restricted any trade in leopard products. The Asian species remain on the
In Sri Lanka the passage of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance
of 1938 put leopards under legal protection in national parks. However
poaching outside those protected areas continues unabated. At least three
skins were confiscated from poachers last year and so far this year, police
have confiscated ten skins.
It is the rapidly increasing human population that is moving more and
more into prime leopard habitat that is causing the conflict between man
and leopard. The major evidence of this 'human - leopard conflict' came
from the Hantane area in Kandy, where leopards started attacking dogs.
According to the researchers, the leopard eats weak and old herbivorous
animals.The leopard also provides food for non-hunters or lesser predators
like jackals and some bird species. Without the leopards, there might be
an increase in the herbivores who would consume more tree leaves and grass
causing a major problem to the natural balance of nature.
Unbelievable as it may seem, there is still no estimate of the leopard
population in Sri Lanka.
"Now that we have started the study, we hope the Department will continue
it in other parts of Sri Lanka. We still cannot give any numbers even in
our study area, because the fully-grown animals move from one jungle to
another. So far we have spotted 25 to 30 leopards in Yala block 1. The
colour and the spots of leopards might vary from the wet zone jungles (in
the hills) to dry zone Yala, Wilpattu and the northern part of Sri Lanka,"
Andrew and Anjali said.
Canadian Andrew and Anjali, his Sri Lankan wife are both wildlife conservation
researchers who studied together at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario,
Canada where they earned honours degrees in Environmental Studies/Geography.
They have been involved in numerous research and conservation projects
around the world during the past six years. In Sri Lanka, these field studies
include working at the Smithsonian Institution's toque macaque (Sri Lankan
Rilawa) research project in Polonnaruwa and the Turtle Conservation Project
in Tangalle. They recently returned to Sri Lanka after nearly two years
in Central America, where they worked at the International Primate Sanctuary
of Panama- a primate rehabilitation and reintroduction project that has
as its goal the establishment of wild populations of native primate species
on selected islands within the Panama Canal.
Jetwing Hotels Ltd has joined hands with the Leopard Project by providing
logistical support and housing for the team. "When Andrew and Anjali walked
into the Jetwing office, they had a big surprise.
We had barely a five-minute meeting and agreed to provide them food
and accommodation for an entire year at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel," said
Gihan de Silva Wijeratne, Director of Eco Holidays, the newly formed eco-arm
Dr. Ravi Samarasinghe is the third person involved in the Leopard Project.
Over the past six years whilst serving as a medical officer at the base
hospital in Hambantota, he had spent most of his leisure at Yala observing
and photographing wildlife. He has also kept notes on the fauna and flora
of the park.
Since 1996, he has concentrated on leopards and using unique facial
spot patterns has been able to identify a number of adult leopards within
the park. Dr. Samarasinghe is also a consultant to the BBC for their current
documentary on the leopards of Yala.